Night had crawled in on Angelus and darkness pooled in the corners of the small lot abutting St. Michael's that served as its cemetery.
Almost no one was buried in Angelus. It was a matter of practicality. When Angelus was designed it had been laid out with plenty of parkland mixed into the housing developments and industrial parks. They'd even made space for golf courses. But cemeteries? Almost none. Golf courses made far more money and were far more urban friendly (and looked better on the brochures) than graveyards.
Only the richest of the rich, the elitist of the elite, were placed into the all-too-rare earth of Angelus after their death. For the most part, the general public had to be content with the same solution the Japanese used for dealing with the recently deceased—cremation. Afterwards, the ashes were stored in vast multi-level vaults, where friends and relatives could visit the deceased at any time—provided they programmed the proper code into their databand. Otherwise, they might wander around for hours, looking for the narrow black slot that held the departed's remains.
In between these two extremes were the mausoleums. Similar in concept and design to the crematorium vaults, they also featured the far more personalized tombstones of a cemetery. Only a lucky few had the chance to be interred in this way.
Nathan Carpenter was one of the lucky few.
The crowds had left, the pomp and circumstance that inevitably surrounded the burial of an important person had finally subsided, and the grounds had thankfully sunk back to the peace of the dead.
The new arrival was located in a brand-new mausoleum, built to specifications. While Nathan Carpenter had not left elaborate instructions regarding his final resting place, his close friends and former teammates had made sure that it would not be disturbed by vandals or souvenir-hunters, or worse.
Security systems, both technological and magical, were inconspicuously arrayed about the site to alert the authorities of any unauthorized attempts at entry.
Of course, security can always be circumvented, especially by one of those responsible for putting it there in the first place.
XSWAT Director Jamadigni Renuka made her way carefully through the barely-lit grounds, intent on making an unannounced visit to her old friend. At the entrance of the mausoleum, she entered a code in the keypad next to the gate, causing it to swing open noiselessly.
She stepped into the dark compartment, feeling her way. Aware of the wards protecting the small structure, she muttered a simple cantrip that brought forth a small glowing ball and pushed back the darkness enough for her to see.
The casket was in the center of the enclosure, on a stone pedestal, with a simple cross-shaped headstone standing guard over it. Flowers and wreaths still decorated the bare walls.
Jama placed her hand on the casket, as if to draw strength from the spirit she knew no longer resided in the body lying inside, then sat down on the cool stone of the pedestal, Cadbury curling up at her feet. The glowing ball was placed on top of a pile of flowers, the tiny dancing flame within consuming nothing.
Reaching into a pocket of her coat, Jama produced a small tightly-wrapped bundle and set it down next to her, near the base of the casket.
She then reached back into her pocket and removed a small flask. Undoing the top, she took a drink and then set it down as well.
A tremor in the threads of magic drew her attention. She had a moment of concern, then relaxed when she recognized the familiar signature of the eldritch energies she sensed.
A portion of shadow detached from one of the walls and coalesced into a young woman, dressed in concealing black.
"Hello, Elizabeth," said Jama as she reached down to calm Cadbury with a touch.
Elizabeth stood respectfully and bowed.
She tended to use the title lightly in conversation, like a nickname born of affection. This time, though, she imbued the word with the proper respect of its true meaning, a student addressing her teacher.
"I apologize for my conduct earlier this day."
There was a long moment of silence as Jama thought of all the things she could say. Admonishment for conduct unbecoming a XSWAT officer (however new), her failure to pay proper respect to her parents, the disruption of a funeral service... the list went on and on. But did it really matter? What was done was done, and nothing she said could change that. Besides, she'd been there, she'd seen how both the Order and Elizabeth's own mother had treated her. She wasn't part of the family anymore. She was tainted, corrupted, something to be shunned, avoided, and possibly hunted down and destroyed. She didn't need any more punishment, she needed—and at this thought Jama smiled—forgiveness.
"Apology accepted, Elizabeth." Jama scooted to one side and tapped the base of the pedestal. "Sit down, please."
The slight release of tension in Elizabeth's shoulders was almost, but not quite imperceptible. She gratefully sank down and rested on the place Jama indicated.
The young woman leaned her head back, eyes closed, and asked, "How bad was it after I left?"
"Your mother told me to butt out. So I did. I came to find you," Jama took another drink from the flask, "And apparently was lucky enough to miss Tyger's attempt at diplomacy." She chuckled softly and then tilted the container towards Elizabeth. "Want some?"
Elizabeth chortled at the mention of Tyger's actions. "Sorry I missed that." At Jama's offer, Elizabeth looked askance, then picked up the small bottle. She sniffed its contents carefully and took a swig.
Her eyes widened as she swallowed a cough.
"Woof! I didn't know you had it in you, Sifu!"
With a grin, she took another swig then respectfully passed the bottle back to Jama.
Jama held the flask up and tilted it towards the coffin behind her. "'To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of the mists; and may each and every one of us always give the Devil his due.'" She nodded to Elizabeth and took another drink. "We've known each other a long time, but you still don't know everything about me."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed slightly. Among her "gifts" (she still mentally rolled her eyes when she heard her abilities described as such; as if she'd found them in a brightly wrapped package under the Christmas tree) she had the power to sense people's emotional state and pick out the threads of specific moods.
Among the flows of nostalgia, regret, and wistfulness, Elizabeth had sensed a slight undercurrent of yearning in a somewhat surprising direction.
I guess I really don't, Sifu, she mused to herself, then grinned as she delicately plucked the container from Jama's hands. This could get interesting.
"I am but your humble student, eager to follow your example. L'chaim."
She tilted her head to take a healthy swallow. Fighting back the tears in her eyes from the firewater burning down her throat, she handed the bottle in a silent challenge.
"By getting drunk?" Jama asked in a rhetorical tone. "Is this is to be an Irish wake, then? Shall we celebrate your father's life instead of mourning his death?"
"I think he would have liked that," Elizabeth replied, managing to sound simultaneously solemn and mischievous.
Jama took a drink from the flask and blinked several times in rapid succession. "I think I'm going to pay for this come morning."
The young woman smothered a giggle, then flashed an evil grin. "Well, if you're going to have to pay the piper, at least make sure you got a good dance out of it."
"I'm always up for a good dance." Setting the flask down, Jama picked up the small, tightly wrapped bundle next to her and held it out to Elizabeth. "Here, perhaps you should find a place for this. I think it will mean more coming from you."
Elizabeth studied the small package offered to her. She could tell it contained small items: a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of what was surely some sort of liquor, a chocolate bar. The wrapping paper was colored paper made to look like currency.
She recognized what the bundle was and what it represented. All sign of mischief or humor drained from her face. Once again the respectful student, Elizabeth shook her head slightly.
"No, Sifu. I... This is your gift to the spirits, the price for them to guard him as he goes forth to his new life. It can have no better bearer than you."
She looked straight into the eyes of her mentor. "I think having you be the one to give it will bring peace to more than one soul."
Jama nodded and took the offering back from Elizabeth. "Thank you." She took another drink from the flask and then stood up, albeit a trifle unsteadily. "I just hope the Order doesn't find this one." She rapped the coffin lightly, "There should be one in here, but I'm fairly sure your mother and the Order gave it a thorough examination once the 9th Squad had left. She doesn't really like us much anymore, you know."
Jama set the flask down on top of Nathan's casket and stood there, silent. Cadbury hopped up next to her and gave a low trrl, bumping his forehead against her chin. Jama gave her cat a slight smile and ruffled his ears. "No, you a pint of ice cream already. That's enough for today." The cat then glanced at Elizabeth, who shook her head as well. Recognizing a firm 'no' he saw it, Cadbury jumped back down.
Reaching out to embrace the casket, Jama rested the side of her head against the cool surface. "He was the rock on which the 9th Squad stood. He had faith in us, and we in him. Richard promised us nothing, but led us to victory time and time again, even if it would mean his death. Tyger questioned his place in the world and always claimed he never understood much of what we were doing, but was always ready to fight for us and beside us. Yiska was the one who asked the tough questions, wanting to understand Alice and her world, wanting to make the world a better place. Malachi questioned himself, his humanity, stood beside me any ways, and swore no harm would befall me."
She paused and took a deep breath, "Your father looked out for each and every one of us. He was always there for us, with a word of encouragement, a helping hand, or simply a open ear and mind. And when Gurzorath fell, he was the one at the center, who took the worst of it, who paid the price in full."
Elizabeth heard her mentor sniff and could see the silhouette of her shoulders shake. "I was the only one spared. I wasn't there and so I came through it all whole. But Nathan, Richard, Yiska...."
She sobbed openly now. "They all look so old... I had hoped that your father would put down the sword and take up the hammer, to help rebuild Angelus, but he couldn't even do that!"
Jama slid down from the casket to end up crumpled next to the pedestal. "Why was I the only one spared?"
A hand rested on her shoulder. From a distance, Jama heard a soft voice.
"Scars do not have to be visible to exist, or wounds bleed for them to hurt. Willingly or not, you have taken a burden and responsibility that may very well have you sacrifice everything you love and hold dear. And the only reward you will get in this world for the pain and anguish you will endure is the hope that somehow you will have made it a better, happier place for the people around you.
"Whatever you do, wherever you go, know that my love and prayers go with you always."
Jama looked up to see Nathan's kind gaze on her, reflected in Elizabeth's eyes.
The girl gave a sad smile, light reflecting on tear-stained cheeks. "Dad told me those words the last time we talked. I didn't realize then they were meant for someone more than me."
Pushing her hair back from her face with both hands and wiping at her eyes and face, Jama returned Elizabeth's smile. "Thank you." She paused, looked at her boots (and a concerned Cadbury), and then said in a low voice, "I loved him you know. Very much."
"We all..." Elizabeth's words of comfort died unspoken on her lips. The surge of emotion from Jama roiled across her senses again, and she saw clearly what had been only hinted at before.
"Oh. Oohh." Elizabeth sat down abruptly on the floor next to Jama as she tried to assimilate this.
Biting her lip, she tried to speak. "Umm, did he, ah... know?"
Jama nodded, her long fall of hair rippling. "I told him. Right after we stopped Masada."
Elizabeth shook her head in wonder. "Wow. Just wow."
Her shoulders gave a small shudder. A snort escaped her lips. She covered her mouth, as giggles bubbled forth.
"I... I'm sorry. I just started remembering his face when he tried to give me the 'birds and bees' lecture way back in 8th grade, and the thought of you telling him, and him..." The rest was smothered by another burst of embarrassed mirth.
Jama turned her head slowly, as if trying to comprehend the reaction her admission had elicited. She watched Elizabeth with a look that was a mix of bemusement and recognition of the absurdity of it all. Finally, her expression softened and she gave her former student a grin. "And Malachi Brogan was right there, watching."
Elizabeth's eyes widened in almost-horror. "No way. Y'mean, like, the whole team knew about it?"
"Ahhh...." Jama's shoulder's slumped. "I honestly have no idea. Malachi knew, that I'm sure of. As for the rest... I don't know. No one ever mentioned it again." She stood and reached for the flask on top of the casket. "We've either had too much or not enough for this conversation." She took another drink and then gasped.
"Nathan's reply was short and simple. 'I know.' That's all he said, all he needed to say." She looked down and grinned, handing the flask over. "Malachi decided to be funny and break the tension with a joke."
Elizabeth absently took her turn at the bottle.
"Really. What'd he say?"
"He looked me right in the eye and said 'I'll bet you say that to all the boys'."
Elizabeth snorted derisively as she rolled her eyes. "Typical. Obvious case of testosterone poisoning."
There was a moment of silence as the two women looked at each other before breaking up into peals of laughter, startling Cadbury, who ducked behind a basket of flowers.
Wiping tears of laughter, Elizabeth said more soberly, "Notch up another reason why Mom ended up not liking you guys."
All humor gone now, she continued. "She never handled the fact that Dad had his 'mission from God,' y'know. He loved her very much, but like the Bible said, he loved God above all else.
"When the Order came by to take us to safety after those crazies pulled a home invasion and all hell was literally breaking loose, she didn't want him to stay behind. They had a big argument about it.
"I think it was then that she put it to the test. It was her or the sword. And, well, you can guess how that went.
"She never stopped loving him. She just couldn't walk the path he was taking. She couldn't really blame him for choosing other than her. So I guess she decided to blame XSWAT, blame you. Blame me."
Jama shifted her feet nervously, before sitting back down, her hands clasped over her knees.
Elizabeth focused her gaze on the coffin with an expression mixed equally with sadness and wistfulness.
"He never did. Blame me, that is. Afterwards, with everything that happened, he never made me feel any less his daughter, any less... loved."
She sat quietly as she wiped the wetness from her cheek, the bottle in her hand forgotten.
Sliding over next to Elizabeth, Jama took the flask from hand and set it down on the floor. She then pulled the girl to her chest, arms about her shoulders, and rested her cheek in Elizabeth's hair. "He loved everyone equally," Jama said. "And he was always there for you, whether you knew it or not."
Cadbury peeked out from his hiding place and then padded over to Elizabeth. Rising up, he planted his paws on her knees. "Trrl?"
Elizabeth brought her arms around to fiercely hug Jama as the floodgates opened and she sobbed loudly, all pretenses dropped. Just a little girl crying for her Daddy.
After a short while, the noises subsided and the clenched arms eased. Elizabeth leaned back, sniffling, eyes red and puffy.
Softly, in a subdued voice, she said, "Thanks."
She sniffed again, wiping her nose across her sleeve in a most unladylike manner. Her face shifted to the ghost of a mischievous smile as she added, "Mama Jama."
Closing her eyes, Jama sighed. "And people wonder why I don't have any children."
Tussling Cadbury's ears, Jama rescued the flask from the floor before the Maine Coon noticed it was there. "Has Mitch... ahh... Sergeant Brogan spoken to you yet?"
The transition from emotional girl to cool, detached warrior was smooth but perceptible. "No. Why would he?"
"To tell you you've been assigned to his squad."
There was a long pause.
"I'm waiting for the punch line."
Jama took a long drink from the flask before answering. "I think the Order might have done something to Malachi Brogan. I've asked Sergeant Brogan to look into it."
Elizabeth remained quiet as she digested this information before answering.
"Do you have any leads to support that, other than the fact he hasn't checked in yet?"
Jama shook her head, her hair falling down in front of her face. "No. No I don't. But I fear it is true."
Elizabeth, stood up, all business, her earlier emotional outbreak totally forgotten. She brushed herself off as she spoke.
"I don't buy it. One good thing that came from Masada's little jaunt all those years ago was stripping the Order of its more militant members. And after spending some time in their oh-so-hallowed halls, I can tell you the ones left behind may be all 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' but they don't have the balls to do more than snub you or call you bad names."
She brought up a hand to forestall any protests. "Now that doesn't mean an individual, or small group of individuals, within the Order couldn't mobilize its resources for some private agenda.
"Believe me, Sifu, I have no respect for the sanctimonious bastards, but if the Order is involved, there's someone behind them pulling the strings. The 'Knock-Knees' would be just a front." Elizabeth's nickname for the Order fairly dripped with contempt.
She suddenly stopped as if a thought had struck her. She slowly turned towards the coffin. "I wonder if that was what he meant..." she mused.
"What?" Jama glanced up from under the fall of her hair. "What did your father say?"
"Huh?" Elizabeth tore her gaze away from a point long ago and far off. "Oh. He didn't say anything specific. It was just... I could tell he was preoccupied when we last spoke, that something was bothering him. The way he talked... I could tell he felt something was wrong with the Order, I mean besides their chronic recto-cephalic insertion tendencies.
"Maybe there is something to your suspicions, Sifu. But it's too early to go to them with accusations."
"You won't be." Jama glanced at the flask in her hand and took another drink. "You'll be looking for Malachi Brogan, first. He's been gone far too long.
"And I want you to promise me something, Elizabeth."
Here it comes, thought Elizabeth resignedly. The "don't frag up" lecture. Don't break the law, don't trash public property, don't eat the perp. She mentally steeled herself to the ordeal.
"I want you to promise me that you'll look after Mitch." Jama stood and laid a hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. "I fear where this investigation might lead, and I couldn't bear to see him hurt or killed. Not after the last time."
Elizabeth stood for a moment, nonplussed. She instinctively formulated some throw-off comment to deflect her confusion. The words died before even getting to her mouth.
Jama's emotions were an open book, no guile, no deception. She really does love him, Elizabeth thought, and it's hurting her.
Elizabeth lowered her head, then raised it again to look Jama directly in the eyes as she answered, "I promise."
Kneeling down, Jama picked up the tightly wrapped spirit offering. Glancing about the dimly-lit chamber, she finally settled for hiding it in a corner, where she hoped it would be out-of-sight of any human visitors. Cadbury gave the spot a few curious sniffs, pawed the package a little further back, and then padded back over to Nathan's casket, to rub against Elizabeth's legs.
Watching her cat quietly, Jama smiled and shook her head. Standing up with a slight groan, swaying just slightly back and forth, she extended her arm to Elizabeth, holding out the silver flask. "Here, one final drink each, and then we go."
Elizabeth took the flask with a grin, and drank one more sip before returning it.
"Um, Sifu?" she asked in a soft voice, gesturing toward the casket. "Could I... have moment alone before we leave?"
"Of course." Picking up Cadbury (with a muttered 'you weigh a ton, cat'), Jama collected the flask and made her way out of the mausoleum. She paused at the entrance, turned and held the flask up to the air. "Good bye, Nathan."
And with that Elizabeth found herself alone with her father.
Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief. She had hated not being entirely truthful with her mentor, but this was something truly between her father and herself.
She reached out and moved her hand down the top of the casket, brushing the imagined dust that would inevitably accumulate, as her mind wandered in the halls of her memory.
The last time Elizabeth had seen her father, Nathan Carpenter had done more than just hinted at problems with the Order. He had directly informed her of his suspicions and asked for her help in uncovering whatever its cause may be.
She mentally winced as she recalled her reaction. She had declined.
No, she had to be honest with herself. She had come close to laughing in his face. She had not believed that her father would ask her to help out the very people who had pretty much made her life close to their version of hell for the latter portion of it. As far as she was concerned, the Order deserved whatever fate they'd reaped in their arrogance.
That's when Nathan had used the very words that Elizabeth had repeated to Jama. Beyond that, he had not cajoled, threatened, or begged. He made it clear that whatever path she chose, it was her right to choose it.
Elizabeth reached into her pocket to bring out its contents. A small rosary, the kind a child would get as a gift for his or her Confirmation, the sacrament that represented the child's entrance as an adult into the Church.
Nathan Carpenter had given that rosary to his daughter, long before events had moved to place her, at least in many eyes, forever alienated from that community of worship.
Her intention had been to leave the rosary here, at her father's grave. His death had removed the last link she'd had to the family that raised her. Her mother's attitude towards her, culminating at the funeral, and Mr. Hemelshot's offer had clinched her decision to renounce her past, and move forward without the baggage it entailed. Leaving the rosary here would've symbolized to her a final farewell to a life she no longer was a part of.
And yet, sitting here with Jama, listening to her fears and anguish, seeing the impact of her father's words on her even after his death, and feeling the pull of fate as circumstances drew her towards her father's wishes despite her efforts, she realized that while she couldn't go back home, she could never really leave it.
She sighed again, then chuckled softly to herself. "OK, Dad. You win."
She returned the rosary to her pocket. The world may have forsaken her, but she wouldn't give up on it quite yet. She owed her father that much.
She slowly leaned forward to kiss the casket.
"Good night, Dad. Get some rest."
She glided towards a dark corner of the mausoleum. The shadows spread out in a welcoming embrace and enveloped her.
And she was gone.